China's parliament has repealed a 1997 law governing sex with minors after a nationwide campaign by women's groups and rights activists, who said it watered down the crime of rape and encouraged child abuse.
The National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee issued a legislative amendment canceling the Sex Crimes Against Girls Law, which had led to the separate treatment of sexual contact with a minor from an existing rape law.
"Sexual relations with a girl under 14, regardless of whether coercion is involved, regardless of whether the perpetrator is aware that the victim is under 14, will be regarded as rape, with a mandatory heavy penalty, and a maximum penalty of death," the committee said in a directive dated Aug. 29.
Under the previous law, defendants had been able to plead ignorance of a child's age, while crimes under the law carried a maximum penalty of 15 years, leading campaigners to dub it a "golden ticket" for sexual predators.
Wu Rongrong, founder and executive director of the Hangzhou-based rights group Women Center, said the move was a necessary one.
"Under the previous crime, there was no protection for the rights of girls, because the crime of sexual activity with underage girls was considered much less serious than that of rape," Wu told RFA.
"The crime of rape should have applied all along, because this crime of sexual activity with girls was just a legitimizing excuse for rape."
Wu said many cases that should have been tried as rape were tried under the old law in recent years.
"But we know that there is extreme damage done to the victims [in these cases]," she said. "In particular, there was a case in Guizhou where the girls were very young indeed."
China's tightly controlled media reported on 425 cases of child sexual abuse last year, the Hubei-based Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch group said in a report earlier this year.
Group founder Liu Feiyue, who has been among those campaigning for a change in the law, said childhood sexual abuse casts a dark shadow over the rest of a victim's life.
"The sexual abuse of children is a fundamental violation of human rights," Liu said. "We have a responsibility to express our concern about it."
He said poverty-stricken rural children who have been left behind in their hometowns by migrant worker parents are particularly at risk of abuse.
"They are often sexually abused by their teachers, but what is the school management doing about it?" Liu said. "The government also has a responsibility towards the victims of sexual abuse, who suffer great damage as a result."
"The government should set out child protection measures which can be assessed, and take a much tougher attitude," he said. "The [old law] really indulged child abusers."
Guangdong-based lawyer Chen Keyun hit out at the government for taking so long to repeal the legislation.
"This doesn't really count as progress," Chen told RFA. "The whole idea of such a crime was ridiculous from the start."
"I think they got rid of it because of certain reactions from overseas, and perhaps a certain amount of pressure from the international community," he said.
Debate of the issue in state media has largely been focused on how the change will outlaw sex with underage prostitutes, in a country where ruling Chinese Communist Party officials and other public servants have paid large premiums to do so.
"When the criminals who had sex with underage prostitutes were government officials, the public reacted strongly to the lenient sentence instead of tougher punishment when sentenced as rape," state-run news agency Xinhua quoted Tsinghua University law professor Lao Dongyan as saying.
China has seen a string of child rape and sexual abuse cases in Hainan, Guangxi, Hunan, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Fujian provinces in recent years, sparking widespread public anger amid allegations from netizens that underage sex has fast become a "perk" expected by Chinese officials.
The families of six primary school victims in a 2013 child rape scandal in China's southern Hainan island told RFA they were angry over the light jail terms handed down to a former principal and local official convicted of the rape of the girls.
High school principal Chen Zaipeng and local official Feng Xiaosong were sentenced to 13 and 11 years' imprisonment respectively by the Hainan Provincial No.1 Intermediate People's Court on June 20, 2013 after being found guilty of raping six schoolgirls aged 11-14.
The string of scandals prompted calls from top female lawyers, rights activists and women's groups for a review of the law.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.